Thursday, October 18, 2018

First Man Explores Uncharted Emotionally Powerful Territory Within A Famous Historical Event


We've all seen Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. Whether you've seen it in photographic form or in videos or in parodies of the man, we're all keenly aware of Neil Armstrong being the first human being to walk on the moon. It's a momentous moment in the history of humanity whose grand importance seems to be as deserving of a movie as any historical event but as many historical dramas have been grappled with in the past, how do you wring drama out of real-life events that everybody and their grandmother knows everything about? For First Man (Damien Chazelle's fourth directorial effort and his third winner in a row as a filmmaker), the solution is to explore both the extensive training leading up to the historic moon landing and the psychological condition of Neil Armstrong himself.

Long before he touched down on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was a pilot for NASA grappling with the death of his daughter, Karen. Soon after that tragedy rocks both himself and his family, Neil Armstrong finds himself accepted into Project Gemini, a NASA program designed to help advance the agencies mission of reaching the moon before space programs in rival countries get there first. If they're gonna get to the moon, it's gonna be a grueling nearly-decade long process of relentless training, failure and perseverance for Armstrong and the other recruits into Project Gemini that include Armstrong's neighbor Ed White (Jason Clarke).

It's during all this training that one quickly realizes that death is a constant presence on the mind of Neil Armstrong even beyond the daughter he lost. One small misstep during any of these training procedures and Armstrong or any of the other Project Gemini recruits could perish. The ever looming prospect of death in his life has so impacted Neil Armstrong that he frequently makes himself isolated from the world on a physical and emotional level. Ryan Gosling plays this dominant part of Armstrong's personality with realistic restraint while all the while making his characters unbearable internal torment over constantly having to deal with the possibility or, worse yet, the reality of losing someone else he holds dear all too clear.

This deft balance makes for a remarkable performance that grips one tightly on an emotional level while exhibiting such restraint. In a moment like when Armstrong gets told, via a phone call, about three of his fellow astronauts having perished in a freak explosion, Gosling communicates so much pain with just his frozen facial expression that's filmed in an extended single shot. First Man captures its lead characters muted anguish so beautifully and it makes his flashes of vulnerability similarly powerful to watch, most notably an early scene of Armstrong being overwhelmed with grief after his daughter's funeral that, like the opening scene of Finding Nemo, establishes in a clear and emotionally devastating fashion why the lead acts the way he does.

The pervasive reminders of his own mortality that so vividly inform Neil Armstrong's personality also make the intense sequences showing Armstrong and his fellow recruits training for possible missions to the moon incredibly harrowing. The camera is always placed right alongside Armstrong or another astronaut within whatever vehicle they're encased in so that we can be placed right alongside them and the terror they're experiencing. Though lingering on Neil Armstrong in times of peril provides the much of the intensity of these distressing scenes, an occasional use of restraint also results in some memorably powerful demonstrations of the mortality of these NASA individuals, specifically the off-screen demise of some astronauts that's indicated by a small cloud of smoke, a stark image that puts a pit in one's stomach.

It isn't just during training sessions that First Man depicts the long-term mental consequences of these risky procedures, there are numerous scenes set at Neil Armstrong's home depicting his wife, Janet Shearon (Claire Foy), trying to carry on a normal life while grappling with the fact that the person she loves may not come home that night. So many biopics about famous white male figures leave the wives of those figures off to the sidelines with nothing to do (can anyone mention anything of substance that Laura Dern was given to do in The Founder?) so it's wonderful that First Man actually finds much for Janet to do that expands on the films central conceit of exploring how these dangerous missions affected the real people tasked with carrying them out.

The fact that Janet Shearon actually has quite a bit to do in the film means Claire Foy gets to give her second impressive feature film performance of 2018 following her vastly different lead role in Unsane. Foy is the pronounced yin to the lead character's reserved yang and both she and Gosling soar in the number of scenes of restrained acting that First Man hands them. Gosling particularly finds himself excelling with subdued acting in the pathos-packed climax of First Man, which depicts that fateful day when Neil Armstrong finally landed on the Moon. Once he steps onto the Moon's surface, he surveys the landscape and suddenly, a scene transpires that epitomizes the very best qualities of First Man.

As Neil Armstrong takes in his surroundings, every inch of the screen is not filled with recreations of world-famous moments like Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, but rather, a flashback to Neil, his family, including Karen, enjoying a picnic together. As the masterful editing cuts back-and-forth between shots of the moon and Neil Armstrong's poignant memories of the daughter he lost, one can't help but be overcome with emotion over watching Armstrong mentally confront the past just as he made history in the present. It's a towering scene of emotional potency done with minimal, if any, dialogue that emphasizes how well First Man explores grounded human experiences transpiring in the middle of historically important events.

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